DALLAS -- Someone yelled, "Crash!"and the flight attendants began screaming. "Heads down! Stay down! Release seat belts! Leave everything!"
As the cabin filled with smoke, the crew herded passengers to the exit and onto the emergency slide. They were incredulous I was still sitting.
I was too distracted to escape. I was busy taking notes.
The Boeing 737 wasn't real, and this wasn't a real accident. This was the Poolie, Southwest Airlines' cabin trainer, a mockup plane named for longtime in-flight training leader Sandy Poole. For years, flight attendant trainees and other crew members have come here to learn how to handle passengers -- and what they should do -- during real emergencies. Though everyone who takes part in the exercise knows their lives are not at risk, many still emerge sobbing.
As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I've come to Southwest's headquarters in this city of 1.24 million people to see how one of the airline industry's most profitable companies continues to soar above the competition. The long answer explaining how Southwest has remained profitable for 40 consecutive years is complicated. But the short answer is this: Relentless good spirit, very smart and efficient operations, new technology, and a dedication to customers. I'm told that Southwest "hires for attitude, and trains for skill."
These are exciting times for Southwest. In October, the so-called Wright Amendment will expire. Passed in 1979 to protect the business operation that is Dallas-Fort Worth airport, the law limited flights into and out of Dallas' Love Field -- Southwest's hub -- to the four surrounding states: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas, and Louisiana. That's why, despite the size of Southwest's operations in Dallas, you can't fly here direct from cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Boston.
In 2006, the airline persuaded Congress to sunset the law, albeit with one provision: an eight-year delay. Now Southwest is awaiting October 13, 2014, when it can commence nonstop service beyond Texas' immediate neighbors. The preparation includes building a new terminal at Love Field, and adding eight Southwest gates, bringing its total in Dallas to 20.
At the same time, Southwest has invested in broad new infrastructure, technology, and building space. The goal is to centralize training, boost the efficiency of daily operations, and deploy the latest social media tools to catch -- or handle -- customer service issues as they're developing.
Southwest is a big business, earning $17.7 billion in sales last year. It offers 3,600 flights a day and in 2010 carried 106,000 passengers, second in the world to Delta's 163,000, according to Nations Online. Now, it is expanding -- and turning to technology to help it master the skies.
Tucked away in a new bunker-like building built to withstand most tornadoes is Southwest's next-generation network operations command, or NOC. Called the "nerve center of Southwest Airlines" by Jeff Darnell, the director of NOC technology and support, it's a giant room bathed in violet light from above and the glow of computer monitors. Clusters of "pods" fill the space, each staffed with a dispatcher, a customer service coordinator, and a crew scheduler.
Each pod is responsible for "the integrity of [the] day-to-day flight schedule" in their sector, Darnell told me. Handed a schedule each day by a network planner, the group has to "execute that schedule for on-time and reliability," he said.
Technology is essential. Sitting at their workstations, the pod members peruse real-time weather data, air traffic maps, and charts that list the minutiae of each flight -- origin and destination, number of gallons of fuel at takeoff and landing, time of pushback from the gate, takeoff, and landing, total passenger count, and more. They also get an at-a-glance view of the status of each and every flight, which helps the pod members see whether there are issues to resolve. "Anything that can happen, we can manage from here," Darnell said.
More adventures from Road Trip 2014
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Weather is the biggest demon. On any given day, pod members, regardless of sector, are grappling with the impact of Mother Nature on the schedule and often wheeling and dealing with air-traffic controllers to get passengers where they need to go. On this particular Monday, a dispatcher named Doug is monitoring a flight between Baltimore and Salt Lake City, and trying to decide how to deal with the large splotches of green and yellow the planned route goes straight through: thunderheads rising to 55,000 feet.
Doug, like all dispatchers a Federal Aviation Administration-licensed airman or "a pilot on the ground," isn't worried. He consults his computerized map and chooses a route that cuts south of Indianapolis, but he keeps the plane north of another set of thunderstorms.
Southwest's NOC wasn't always like this. Before moving into this building earlier this year, there were no pods. Everything was arranged in a linear fashion, Darnell said. But by clustering team members together, by sector, they can solve most any problem that may come up for a flight, whether it's a maintenance issue, a weather problem, or even a customer service issue on board the plane. In fact, though the pilots are the ones flying the aircraft, they can't push back unless given the green light by a dispatcher. "The dispatcher is 'flying the flight' with the captain," Darnell said. "They're just looking an hour or two ahead, looking for conditions" that must be dealt with.
Airline passengers can be very passionate about their flying experiences -- especially when they're bad. In today's age of social media, airlines like Southwest can't afford to ignore complaints.
A month ago, Southwest opened its "Listening Center." In a wide room with eight large monitors on the wall and 15 monitors on a long narrow desk, staffers from Southwest's communications, marketing, and customer relations departments are glued to social media -- Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube -- looking for situations, bad and good, to respond to.
On one screen is an ever-changing mosaic of Twitter avatars for people that Southwest's algorithms consider influencers. Color-coded for sentiment -- red for bad, green for good -- the images float across the screen. When someone's avatar is red, the team clicks on it, sees what the person is tweeting about, and begins trying to deal with it. Frequently, it's someone with a complaint about a poor flight or a long delay. The team members try to figure out what flight the passenger was on, and sometimes contact the plane's crew to determine what happened. More often, they'll try to mollify the passenger through a direct-message conversation.
But the Listening Center is also about inserting Southwest into the zeitgeist of the day -- tastefully, of course. I'm told about a tweet the airline sent during this year's New York Fashion Week. Alongside a photo of a Southwest plane and the #NYFW hashtag, Southwest joked: "This runway model is going places."
On another screen is an evolving word cloud, a representation of the most common phrases being mentioned in social media about Southwest. At the center is the word "airline," but there's also "$19," which, it turns out, is a reference to $19 tickets being sold by a competitor. How is the word cloud useful? In November, Southwest recognized, before any official reports had been issued, that there was an active shooter situation at Los Angeles International Airport.
Someone had tweeted they weren't able to get off their "spaceship," a phrasing that caught the attention of a Southwest staffer monitoring the word cloud. More tweets appeared alluding to the shooting, which resulted in the death of one Transportation Security Administration officer and the wounding of several others. Southwest was the first airline to post anything, offering an advisory to customers to be aware of what was happening at LAX. It was another 10 or 15 minutes before Southwest's own NOC received reports of the shooting.
Back on the other side of Southwest's giant new building -- across the street from its main headquarters -- I've managed to jump onto the emergency slide and, despite my slow start and confused stares from the flight attendants, escape to safety from the "fire" aboard my "plane."
Though the Poolie experience can't replicate an actual crash, it does allow trainers and trainees to practice the intensity of action during an emergency. That's why the crew was yelling so loud when the smoke appeared.
The Poolie is just one of the training operations housed in the new building. Run by Elizabeth Bryant, a vice president at the airline, Southwest University offers training in everything from reservations to technology, to call centers to provisioning, and the many things would-be flight attendants need to know, including CPR and self-defense.
And how to evacuate a burning airplane.
For years, Southwest offered training regionally, but two-and-a-half years ago, it decided to construct a new $120 million building, and bring everything to Dallas. Now, it has 36 classrooms. It trained 1,500 flight attendants in the last year.
The Poolie training is intense. Flight attendants learn how to get their own classmates out of a smoke-filled cabin, in the dark, so that they learn how to adapt to whatever circumstances might arise. With so much yelling and screaming, it's no wonder many emerge overcome by emotion. For me, the effect wasn't as dramatic because I knew what was happening -- and because my job wasn't on the line.
Still, seeing all that smoke in the cabin was unnerving. Afterward, as I met Bryant for a quick debrief, she turned to me and deadpanned, "Did you have an eventful flight?"
Keep an eye out for more behind-the-scenes stories and photo galleries as I travel throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kansas during this year's Road Trip. I'll seek out the most interesting technology, military and aviation sites, architecture, and other destinations our country has to offer. From U.S. Air Force basic training to NASA's Johnson Space Center and FedEx's massive package-sorting hub, Road Trip 2014 lets you journey along with me.